Friday, January 20, 2017

How will history view Obama?

For the past week, one of the most repeated questions has been, "How will history view Obama?"  That is really a meaningless question.  How has history viewed Thomas Jefferson?  Sixty years ago, he was something like a Greek god:  the author of the Declaration of Independence, the president who had the foresight to buy the Louisiana Purchase, and a scientist to boot.  Today he is more likely to be condemned as a slave owner and an expansionist.  How has history viewed Andrew Jackson?  He has cities and counties named after him, and his face is still on the $20 bill -- but that honor is scheduled to be taken from him, due in no small part to his role in Indian removal.  How has history viewed Queen Elizabeth I of England?  How has history viewed Christopher Columbus?  How has history viewed the emperor Constantine the Great?  How has history viewed the pharaoh Ramses the Great?

There really is no entity called "history" that forms a stable judgment on the past.  Instead, each generation forms a new judgment based on their own values and concerns, and of course based also on a longer view of how actions in the distant past have had consequences for future events.

Nevertheless, a good rule of thumb is that, from a more distant perspective, the human flaws of a hero make him seem less remarkably good, and the initial innocence and occasional virtues of even a monster make him less completely a monster.  The heroism may be real, and the crimes may be real, but their true significance is often exaggerated in the heat of the moment.

My guess is that in a century or so, our descendants will certainly not see Obama as a kind of American Messiah, but nor will he be seen as a kind of demonic force driving America to perdition.  He is more likely to be seen as a kind of willing cog in the machine of the Zeitgeist.  He will not be seen as a Chernabog, but more of an Eichmann; he willingly cooperated with evil, and bears responsibility for that, but the evil would have happened without his cooperation.

One way or another, it will take some time to reach a "verdict of history".  It will require a generation with no emotional attachment to his presidency, whether positive or negative, with information on the long-term effects of Obama's choices, and (rarest of all) with the honesty to refuse to make him a cardboard figure for their own propagandistic dioramas.  If you voted in the 2016 election, it is safe to say that you will not live to see that kind of dispassionate evaluation.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Dream about WW2 in Italy

Here's another dream, but one from a long time back.  I was in high school or maybe even middle school when I had this dream, but it was striking enough for me to remember through the years.

In my dream, I was an American soldier fighting in Italy somewhere just south of Rome in World War II.  In this case, we were clearing a building of German soldiers, who were mostly refusing to surrender.  It was dangerous, but the Germans in this building were clerks, not fighters, and they had pistols in contrast with our rifles, so we had a distinct advantage.  I remember the deeply recessed doorways of the building -- both sides used them for cover.

Suddenly, another German popped around the corner, only this time it was not a man, but a lovely blonde woman in an army auxiliary uniform.  What happened in the seconds immediately after she came into view was a little blurry -- I think that I dreamed and re-dreamed that sequence until I found a successful compromise between my upbringing, which strongly emphasized that no real man hurts a woman, and my desire for self preservation.  After all, she did have a pistol!  The resolution was that I shot her in the shoulder, a nonlethal wound that forced her to drop the pistol.

She also had with her a sort of document box.  This was a box about a foot square and about 4 inches high that would be used to secure important documents; if anyone tried opening it without knowing the trick, it would explode, destroying both the documents and the person opening it.  This was something we were looking for, and in the dream I suspected it contained details of the movements of German tanks being brought up from Yugoslavia to reinforce their positions in Italy.  (Yes, this was a very detailed dream.)  I took the box from her, and she was led away to have her wound treated and to be processed with the other prisoners.

I took the box to headquarters, which in the dream was ridiculously close to the front -- apparently in the next building, actually.  There I found the general who was (at least theoretically) in command of the operation, along with my colonel.  The general was useless, though; he was preparing for some sort of confirmation hearing for his appointment to a position in the OSS, and his mind was entirely on that hearing.  As a result, the man effectively in charge was my colonel, who, as further events would show, was a complete idiot.

The colonel examined the box, and he noticed that the lid was held on by something like a tie strap fastener; it was designed so that once inserted, it could not be pulled out.  "You see how they don't want us to pull this out?  That's just what we're gonna do," he announced. 

This sounded like a terrible idea to me -- simply applying brute force to a box that we knew was booby-trapped.  I suggested that maybe the woman who had been captured in possession of the box would know how to open it, but he would have nothing of it, telling me (in words I can never forget), "Do you think I got all this rank without knowing how to defuse a Nazzy bomb?"

When I heard that and knew he was just about to force it, I turned around and started running.  I had just made it outside the building when the charges went off.  Then I woke up.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Russia, the Election, and Fake News

There are several aspects to this story, but let's start with what is alleged to have happened.
  • The most serious thing that Russia could have done would have been to directly tamper with the electoral process by hacking voting machines, meaning that the vote tallies corresponded with the decisions of the hackers and not the decisions of the voters.  This would be such an assault on our system of government it would be an act of war.  Thanks be to God, there is no evidence this happened, and no one is seriously suggesting it did.  However, the language used in American media to describe the allegations of Russian interference seem purposely designed to plant that suspicion in the minds of those who only keep up with the news casually.
  • It is worth pointing out that any serious world player could pretty easily assassinate a political candidate.  Although this would probably provoke a more extreme emotional response, and undoubtedly lead to a real, "hot" war, it would actually be less of an affront to our system.  Even in the absence of assassinations, people die due to accident or disease, and we have a very robust system for providing equivalent replacements in case an office holder, let alone a candidate for office, should die.  This obviously did not happen, though.
  • Russia could, through hacking or bribes or some other means, illegally obtain access to classified information held by the U.S. government.  This undoubtedly happens, as the U.S. likewise undoubtedly obtains classified information held by the Russian government in violation of Russian laws.  I suspect the Russians have acquired the technical details to the F-35 Lightning II in this way, for example.  This is the only thing that can really be called spying, but it is pretty old hat, and at any rate it is not what the media uproar is about.
  • Russia could, through hacking or bribes or some other means, illegally obtain access to confidential information held by private parties.  This, finally, is one of the things that has been alleged to have happenedRemember, political parties may control the government, but they are not the government.
  • Russia could have made sure that compromising information, however obtained, about a candidate was leaked to the public.  This is also alleged to have happened.
  • Finally, Russia could have found plenty of compromising information about either candidate not only by performing perfectly legal investigative journalism, but by merely paying attention the the news over the past three or four decades and using a little common sense.  If this didn't happen, some Russians definitely need to lose their jobs.

Next, let's consider just what it means if the accusations against Russia are true.  
  • Imagine if, instead of it being Russia hacking computers belonging to the Democratic Party, it had been Japan hacking computers belonging to Greenpeace -- perhaps out of frustration at Greenpeace's continuing interference with Japanese whaling.  Would this have received anything like the attention the Russia story has gotten?  Not at all.  There would have been some diplomatic protests and probably some minor retaliation, but it would scarcely have become a major point of friction between the two nations.
  • But really, shouldn't we retaliate against a nation that interferes with our presidential elections?  If that is the case, I demand sanctions against the United Kingdom.  Remember when British parliamentarians were talking about how Trump should be barred from entry to the U.K.?  That interference is much more blatant, and in fact much more of a real influence, but note the complete absence of any reference to it whatsoever, let alone any calls for retribution.  UPDATE 2/20/17:  Meddling from the Limeys continues.  I am not a fan of Trump, but I take great offense at this kind of interference, which would demand retaliation.  Many Americans will feel even more strongly about it than I do.  
Then there is the question of the trustworthiness of the accusations.
  • Would the U.S. intelligence community really lie to the public?  Um ... yeah, at least if they felt they had some reason to.  They've never really even pretended that their mission is to provide accurate and complete information to the public, and the public has generally been quite accepting of this.  The whole bits about "We're not spying on the American civilian public!" and "We don't perform torture!" demonstrate that this is not just a theoretical possibility. 

    The question is, do they see themselves as "having some reason to" lie to the public?  We cannot be sure, but the possibility definitely exists.  Senior leadership in the intelligence community may be legitimately frightened that the U.S. stands to lose preeminence in the Middle East if Russia is seen as responding to ISIS  more effectively than we do, or they may be worried about trouble Trump might stir up with China, or they may just fear his unpredictability.  For any of these reasons, they may feel the idea that he was helped into office by Russian meddling might make him less willing to break sharply from policies pursued by previous presidents, or it might at least make him more defensive and preoccupied with domestic criticism.
  • Regarding the evidence redacted from the report but made available to American officials, that is only as meaningful as the authors of the report are trustworthy.  The sort of electronic records they could create would be very difficult for even a professional with the full resources of another country's intelligence agencies to confirm or deny.  If the evidence was faked, it was faked by professionals, and it would appear flawless to even professionals lacking independent access to the raw records.  There is no way for the public, or for the government, for that matter, to confirm its authenticity.
  • Then again, some readers with experience in reading such reports are claiming the language used actually is less definitive than the press and the Obama administration are suggesting.  Remember Saddam Hussein's WMD -- the ones so fearsome that the mere possibility of their existence was said to justify war?  When George W. Bush wanted to invade Iraq, the intelligence community certainly seemed to be supporting him, but when the WMDs turned out to be nonexistent (or to have been long-abandoned projects), that same community pointed out that they never actually claimed that the weapons absolutely, definitively existed, only that there was some evidence suggesting they existed.  This kind of maneuver allows them to technically tell the truth, but in a way that rather dishonestly leaves the whatever impression their bosses desire to be left, regardless of the truth.
  • The other tool one can use in a situation like this is an examination of the balance between risk and reward.  The players we are discussing will obviously avoid major risks unless they are accompanied by great rewards.  We have already considered possible rewards for the American intelligence community to lie, and the fact that the risks are greatly limited by the difficulty in verifying or falsifying their supporting documents.  What about the Russians?

    That's a hard question to answer.  Clinton was the embodiment of the American governmental status quo, and the status quo had become increasingly anti-Russian, so there was some benefit to them if she were not elected.  On the other hand, I seriously doubt she is such a moron as to actually provoke a war with a nation controlling 7,000 nuclear warheads.  Furthermore, she obviously needed no outside help in destroying her candidacy -- her "basket of deplorables" comment is almost certainly what cost her the election.  As for the risk, it could have been expected to have been comparable to mere industrial espionage, which goes on all the time.  Would they accept a modest risk for a modest reward?  Maybe.

Taken together, all of this means that the Russians may well have hacked into the Democratic Party's computers, though we cannot be sure, but that even if they did, it's not really that important.  Contrast that conclusion with what we hear from the major news bureaus, though, which is CIA locuta est, causa finita est, and that only a simpleton could doubt that Russian meddling was not only real, but that it completely delegitimized the last election.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a perfect example of fake news.